Celebrating ecumenism and working for reconciliation in Sri Lanka

A floating market in Colombo

A floating market in Colombo

In October 2014 the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka (NCCSL) celebrated one hundred years of ecumenism. The UCA Synod of Victoria and Tasmania was invited to send a representative group to join these important centennial celebrations and services of thanksgiving.  It also gave us the opportunity to deepen our relationships with our partner churches in Sri Lanka and throughout Asia by attending a series of meetings and consultations. Our host was Rev W P Ebenezer Joseph, the general secretary of the NCCSL.

“Dear me, it is beautiful! And most sumptuously tropical:  ‘What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle’ – an eloquent line; it says little, but conveys whole libraries of sentiment, and Oriental charm and mystery, and tropic deliciousness.” – Mark Twain in 1896 describing a visit to Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” – Preamble to UNESCO’s Constitution
There exist two seemingly contradictory views of Sri Lanka: The ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ a wondrous tourist paradise … or … a ‘Teardrop Island of Tears’ where for almost 30 years, until 2009, a violent civil war raged, claiming more than 100,000 lives.

There is some truth in both descriptions, but not the whole truth in one alone. The guns may have fallen silent in 2009, but the hard work of reconciling this beautiful but divided country has only just begun at the grassroots.

Under the umbrella of the NCCSL, our church partners in Sri Lanka are undertaking this slow painful work of healing broken people and communities. The NCCSL journeys together with Christians of most denominations and traditions.

These churches operate in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-faith society where the vast majority are Buddhist (70 per cent) and significant minorities are Hindu (13 per cent), Muslim (10 per cent) and Christian (6 per cent). Sinhalese and Tamil are spoken widely but discriminating policies and the war made monolingual schools the norm – thus dividing the country and its people further on language, culture and ethnicity.

For three decades a whole generation of people were taught to hate and fear the ‘other’, to see them as the enemy. Reconciliation is thus a slow process which must involve repairing the psychological trauma of the war years. It has to reach hearts and minds whilst also healing the bodies and lives of those worst affected.

What the NCCSL is doing in Sri Lanka, with important assistance from the Uniting Church in Australia, is to re-kindle hope for a sustainable peaceful future whilst encouraging policy makers to address past hurts and injustices. It is helping divided communities to remember how to live together in harmony with respect for difference in a rich, shared culture. Many older Sri Lankans nostalgically remember that this more harmonious society existed prior to the divisive language policies of 1956 and the explosion of violence in 1983.

Here in Melbourne we are mirroring this approach in our work with the large Sri Lankan diaspora. Throughout the decades of war, refugees and migrants left Sri Lanka in large numbers and fled to India, Canada, Britain, Europe and Australia.

There are now more than 100,000 Sri Lankans living in Australia and nearly half of them (44,000) live in Victoria. Through the Commission for Mission’s Uniting Through Faiths project we are building harmony across ethnic and religious divisions and bringing together a community still traumatised and divided by that long civil war.

The NCCSL mission statement includes the goals of reconciliation, inter-faith collaboration and a focus on the poor:

Celebrate the diversity of all persons and promote reconciliation among diverse communities
Collaborate with people of other faiths and organisations for the common good of society
Extend (service and development) to all in need, particularly to the poor and the marginalised

The synod team in Colombo had a full agenda. We participated in the annual review meeting of the Ecumenical Network on Sri Lanka (ENSL), where international funding bodies from churches in Britain, Norway, Australia and India work together to support local projects with NCCSL. This was followed by a two-day consultation on ‘Moving beyond conflict – opportunities and challenges to the ecumenical pilgrimage in Asia’.

This also involved about 20 representatives of the Christian Conference of Asia (the largest regional ecumenical group with members from 21 countries and 100 denominations) – who decided to hold their committee meeting in Colombo to coincide with the centennial celebrations.

We attended the South Asian Council of Churches 20th Anniversary Celebrations. ‘Waves of Unity’ was the major red carpet public event held at a beautiful conference centre in Colombo. The President of Sri Lanka, Mr Mahinda Rajapakse, was the chief guest at this gala event.

An opportunity arose for the synod team to sit and dialogue with three young leaders of the Muslim community in Colombo. We were keen to hear about their perspectives on the current situation in Sri Lanka which has witnessed some openly anti-Muslim statements and actions in recent years. Mosques have been damaged and individuals and communities attacked by groups of thugs whilst police have stood by and not interfered.

This open and honest exchange enabled us to learn at first-hand how a strong and vibrant community deals very carefully and effectively with such explosive issues.

We found an admirable sensibility in these young people and a refusal to slide into retaliation to this provocation. Rather than reprisals, there were calls amongst Muslims for moderation in their responses.

We were assured that a strong belief exists that the vast majority of Sri Lankans – Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim – only want to live in peace with each other. Nobody wants a return to war and violence.

Inter-faith exchanges such as we were having are commonplace in the community; therefore the networks of respect are stronger than the voices or actions of the few who seek to sow animosity between faiths. However, much remains to be done to keep the fires of inter-faith collaboration burning.

Once again we were humbly reminded how much we can learn by walking together with our neighbours in South and South-East Asia on our journeys of faith.
The synod team comprised the Moderator Dan Wootton, Rev David Pargeter, executive  director Commission for Mission, Rev SweeAnn Koh of the Intercultural unit and three Sri Lankan born representatives; Rev Dev Anandarajan  (Tamil),  Rev Rajitha Perera (Sinhalese)  and Larry Marshall (Burgher). We were joined in Sri Lanka by Rev Raja Rajakulendran, who is now a volunteer worker in Sri Lanka supported by UnitingWorld and the Methodist Church.

Larry Marshall is the program manager of Uniting Through Faiths for the CFM.

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